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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Mal is learning all the skills to become a smuggler and ruining a brand new shirt.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1916 RATING: 10 SERIES: FIREFLY
THE PRICE PAID--CHAPTER EIGHT-- BOROS
Mal is learning all the skills to become a smuggler and ruining a brand new shirt. With many thanks for the beta to Channain and to Harri Vane for her reminder of what an ER waiting room is really like. Feed back gratefully accepted. Please do not archive without advance permission and know that these characters are not mine, they belong to Mutant Enemy and Joss Whedon.
bai fan [plain cooked rice/rice with nothing to go with it]
jia xiang ji [home town chicken (a type of dish)]
Dong ma [understand]
Wode tian! [Oh God!]
Ai ya [Damn]
shu ren [acquaintance/friend]
IN THE PRESENT
It was agreed that Rafe would wait with the ship while Tanaka and Mal met the contact at a local dive. "The ship always comes first. If you got no ship, you got nothing, you're on the drift. First job, in the black or in port, is to secure the ship," Tanaka explained. Although some ships had fairly sophisticated ignition interlock security systems, Tanaka preferred to rely on an armed presence aboard the Katy until they had a better feel for conditions in the port.
A buzzing red neon sign garishly announced the entrance to Sam Choy's, a seedy, working-class tavern near the back gate of the supply depot. They were to play pool until the contact appeared, so they spent several hours nursing a couple of beers and disinterestedly working the pool table, taking turns letting each other win.
It was almost last call before they were approached by a nondescript man in the uniform of the Alliance Colonization Corps who sidled up and mentioned Badger's name. From his accent, Mal made him for a conscript; the sort who had been given the choice to enlist or serve a penal sentence. They bought another round of beers and settled at a table to discuss matters with the corpsman when they got their first inkling that things might not go as smoothly as planned.
"We got a bit of a problem,” were the first words out of his mouth, his eyes darting nervously around the room.
Mal and Tanaka looked at each other, then Tanaka said "What kind of a problem would that be, friend?"
"The fella as was supposed to get the goods off the depot was bound-by-law over a bit of domestic set-to.” Seeing Tanaka's look of inquiry he added, “Seems his wife was steppin' out on him and he took a tire iron to her and her fancy-man. Killed the fella, left the wife for dead. That being the case, he's not like to be of any help to us now."
Mal cursed fluently in Mandarin, as Tanaka inquired, "Is there any other way of getting the goods out?"
"There's a new driver on the route. I don't know any way to approach him,” the corpsman said with a grimace. “He's kind of a straight arrow. Don't think we can risk trying to buy him."
"Got any other weakness as could be turned to account?" Tanaka asked pragmatically.
He began ticking off the most likely weaknesses on the fingers of one hand as he recited them "No girlfriends, or boyfriends that I know of. “Not a drinker or gambler. Seems to be a loner. Eats at the same bar every night, has a couple of beers, then heads for the barracks by 23:00. Nothin' I've been able to get a handle on, and I been trying." He said in apparent frustration.
Mal interjected "Mike, I'm getting an inkling here, but I think we got to
work this through a bit," he said as he looked at the older man meaningfully.
"I'll tell you what, friend," Tanaka said to the contact, "We'll get back to you on what's doing. Meet you here tomorrow." When the corpsman nodded agreement,Tanaka collected Mal with a look and they headed back to the Katy.
Rafe was glum as they reported what happened. The small man had lost his customary good humor as he contemplated the wasted trip. Tanaka turned to Mal expectantly after they finished the recitation. "Well, let's hear this inkling, then."
“You fella's ever hear of a 'Mickey Finn'?"
Rafe shook his head negatively, but Tanaka nodded with a look of enlightenment.
"Happened to one of my troopers, on liberty just before the New Terra campaign. He was three days overdue, didn't make the jump. Terra was short, sharp and ugly. We were back to restage within the month. He was in the brig when we got back; they were looking at him for desertion under fire.
“He'd always been a good boy, steady, you know. So when he said he'd just had the one beer with a gal and woke up broke, heaving his guts out, with a head the size of a watermelon, I believed him. Insisted on a drug screen. They found byphodine, it’s an anesthetic. Leaves traces in the blood for a good month--longer than that in hair. Some whores mix it in a fella's drink, makes a pimp roll easier and no risk of the john resisting, they call it a 'Mickey Finn'."
Rafe asked "Ahhh, Mal? I'm with you now, but where we gonna get this stuff? Sounds kinda’ hard to come by to me."
Tanaka answered for him. "Place like Boros, big Alliance presence, bound to have a well-stocked ER at the local clinic."
Mal nodded agreement. "All we need to do is come up with a way to steal the stuff, dope this guy's drink and steal his truck. We can go in and load up with our own shopping list, drive out the main gate, waved on by Badger's man--easy-peasy."
"Guys, I hate to piss on everybody's parade, but how we gonna do that without letting every Fed on the planet know it's the Katy lifting with a hi-jacked cargo?" Rafe inquired sardonically.
It was Mal's turn to grin. "That's the beauty of byphodine, it puts a man out for a couple of days. Busy port like Boros, bound to have lots of ships lifting in that kind of window. By the time they realize what happened to their man, we'll be dust in the wind." Mal saw his own smile reflected in the faces of the other men. "Now as to how to get the right drug, that's a bit more of a puzzler."
Rafe stood as Mal finished speaking and made to squeeze past Mal into the tiny galley, headed for the perpetually brewing coffee. Mal had to push back in the close quarters to allow him passage. He saw Rafe and Tanaka’s grins get wider. Rafe stood with his hands on the pot as Tanaka drawled, "As to that, I expect we could come up with something."
"Can you lend us the use of your pocket knife, Mal?" Rafe asked from the galley.
Mal reached into the pocket of his trousers for the folding knife he'd carried from childhood. He'd first used it to pull rocks from hooves and later for everything from opening a ration can to cutting primer cord. His hand came empty out of the pocket where it habitually lived and began to pat down his other pockets in search of the elusive tool. When he looked up, Rafe had come in from the galley with the coffee pot in his left hand. In the open palm of the right, held out for Mal's inspection, was the missing pocket knife, the watch he carried in a different pocket, as well as the few coins he’d had left at the end of the evening. Tanaka burst into laughter at the look on Mal's face as Rafe smiled in gentle satisfaction.
"How did you do that?"
"That's nothing," Tanaka chortled. "You should see him take a woman's bra off without unbuttoning her shirt."
Mal grinned. "I'd say that would be some kind of party trick, all right!" He watched in appreciation as Rafe tossed the objects into the air and caught all but a pair of coins in his left hand. The two platinum coins landed in the right and he immediately began to spin them across his knuckles without so much as glancing at them. "So I guess we just need a way to get you into the ER, then."
"Oh, no, we got that already." Tanaka said meaningfully. "He's gonna be escorting a drunk friend as got knifed in a bar brawl. Ain't you Rafe?" Rafe just nodded with his gentle smile and continued to roll the coins.
Mal looked apprehensively at the other men and asked "Why do I have the distinct feelin' I'm about to get knifed?"
"'Cause you always were a bright boy," Tanaka said with that same wolfish smile.
Some time later Mal squinted down through a mildly alcoholic haze at the bloody ruins of his brand new shirt. Poking a finger through the whole on the left arm just above the elbow to explore the fairly deep knife cut on his bicep he asked plaintively "Tell me again why I have a hole in my arm?"
"Look, Mal, we already discussed this," Tanaka said with the gentle patience reserved for drunks and children. "I gotta stay with the boat; Rafe's gotta lift the drug cabinet key, get the drugs and replace the key. You have to keep the medic busy. Stands to reason, you need a wound as at least requires some sewing. You know as well as I do, arm's best place for that. No major blood vessels, not deep enough to cut muscle or tendon and less painful than cutting your hand. 'Sides,” he leaned over with a wicked grin and patted Mal's good shoulder. "We wanted something to enhance your standing with your grandkids when you commence to tellin' them how you became a smuggler. Dong ma?"
"Well okay, then, since it's for the grandkiddles, lets get this show on the road."
Rafe took the bottle of sake they had used as a primitive pain killer and rinsed his own mouth with it, throwing back his head to gargle before spitting the remainder on a handkerchief that he pushed loosely into his shirt pocket like a lady’s sachet. As the finishing touch, he splashed a few ounces liberally about his person then they were ready to set off.
As they rolled into the ER they realized it must be payday because it seemed like everybody and his dog Spot, had liquored themselves up and gotten in some kind of brawl or another. Then there was the usual old lady with whooping cough, the man who got bit by a dog and the tired woman with the howling two year old. The medical staff were getting run off their feet, and didn’t have either the time or the energy to closely monitor one uninjured spacer escorting a minor knife wound in the midst of so much chaos.
They sat in the waiting room a considerable time just watching the action, fending off the drunks looking to cadge a few coins and trying to ignore the neurotic hypochondriac who insisted on describing in excruciating detail all of the symptoms associated with his irritable bowel, while they waited Mal’s turn with the medic. Finally, they caught sight of a nurse using a card key on the drug cabinet through the swinging doors to the treatment rooms. Rafe met Mal’s eye and nodded casually, then got up and sauntered across the lobby to a water fountain near the door. He looked significantly at Mal then glanced towards the triage nurse seated at a counter facing the waiting room. Mal got up and ambled over at a stagger to lean in to the nurse’s station.
“Darlin’ I can see you got your hands full and all, but I was kinda wonderin’ if I’m like to see the medic anytime this week, cause this is cuttin’ into my drinkin’ time considerable. My captain’s gonna lift soon, and I’ll still be sober at this rate.” He said with a cheerfully drunken leer.
As soon as Mal blocked the view of the nurse, Rafe slid through the doors and into the controlled pandemonium of a very busy trauma center. Medical staff were moving purposefully from room to room. No one seemed to take any notice of him wandering among the treatment cubicles, as if in search of an injured friend. Doubtless more than one nurse had access to the drug cabinet, but he had his eye on the sure thing. When she came out of a cubicle at a controlled jog, he had his opening and put himself into her path. Catching her with profuse apologies as they collided, he righted her and the rack of tubes of drawn blood she carried as he lifted the card from her pocket smooth a silk. With his wide, disarming smile he moved away from her and the hubbub of the treatment rooms, moving toward the quieter service hallways leading to the hospital proper.
Rafe found a rack of clean scrubs and grabbed a lab coat from a stack of them. He slid into a supply room around the corner to put it on. Emerging from the corridor in the lab coat he headed back to the ER striding purposefully. He approached the drug cabinet nonchalantly and used the access card without arousing the least interest. Then into the cabinet as easy as ‘Bob’s your uncle’ and out with the byphodine. He dropped the white jacket in the rolling laundry basket by the supply room just as he saw Mal being led to a curtained treatment area. He strolled up to the room and bent to examine the floor at the open curtain, ostentatiously picking up the card as if it had just dropped on the ground from the nurse’s pocket.
“’Scuse me Doc, this something you need?” he asked, disingenuously.
The resident was right in the middle of his sutures and pointed with his chin at the counter beside the treatment bed. “Thanks, don’t think its mine, probably one of the nurse’s. I’ll ask around,” he said casually. He was very fast, the stitches were small and neat and he was already finished by the time he said it. Nothing like a lot of practice to keep your hand in. “Keep it clean and dry. You should be fine. If it gets red or hot to the touch, come back. Drink lots of water before you go to bed, it’ll help with the hangover.” The medic went on to add matter-of-factly, “You might want to find another place to drink, in the future.”
“Or other people to drink with, I’m thinking. This was a brand new shirt.” Mal replied laconically. Rafe grinned at him, thanked the doctor and they left without any further ado.
By the time they got back to the Katy dawn was breaking. As Mal dropped his suspenders and pulled the now ruined shirt from his waistband, he winced and checked at the sudden movement, hissing at the unexpected pain. He collapsed on his bunk and bent to try to pull his boots off, finally managing to ease them off one-handed.
He began to chuckle at the thought of what Zoe would say about tonight’s little escapade. He could hear her dry comments as clearly as if she was in the room with him. “I leave you alone for five minute, sir, and you go and get yourself stabbed by your own troops. Couldn’t you at least have put on an old shirt?”
He sat in arrested motion on the bunk, one boot still in his hand as the laughter welled up. He was still chuckling to himself and wondering what she was doing on Shadow when he dropped off to sleep.
After getting back from the hospital, they got a few hours’ kip, then Tanaka and Mal went back to the bar and met Badger’s twitchy friend. They were ready to put the second phase of the operation into practice. They got the details of the driver’s daily schedule and name and direction of the tap room where he liked to have his nightly brew. Then they took up position outside the gate of the base at a local tea house, nursing a pot of tea and a plate of rice cakes between the three of them, for the contact to point out their man as he left the base for his lunch. A non-descript man of middle size in gray utilities, he entered a cheap noodle house and sat alone to consume a bowl of saimin. After observing him long enough for Mal to be sure that he would know the man when he saw him again they left, making arrangements to meet Badger’s man at the loading gate when they got the truck.
Tanaka was sending Rafe and Mal, figuring Rafe could spike the drink while Mal provided a likely distraction. “In the meantime I’ll be having an alibi-worthy evening with Captain Teresa Rinaldi, mistress of the Esperance.” Tanaka said with his predatory smile.
At Mal’s inquisitive look he elaborated, “The Esperance just got in port today, I’ve known Tess for years, the harbormaster is a friend of hers and she’s got a game set up with him. I managed to wangle an invitation. Ahhh, a deck of cards, a bottle of whiskey, and Tess Rinaldi--pretty much a perfect evening.” He said enthusiastically. “It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.”
Rafe met Mal’s look with a rolled eye eloquent of his feelings. But but he continued without comment, to explain his theory about following a subject without letting the fellow know you were tailing him.
“It’s no trick to come into a place after your man’s got there, but if he’s twitchy at all he’ll be checking out everyone who comes into the place after he does.” Rafe paused to make sure he had Mal’s attention and continued on receiving his nod of comprehension.
“No, the real secret to following your man is to get where he’s going ahead of him and be waiting when he comes through the door. He won’t expect anybody already there could be following him. Stands to reason.” He concluded knowingly.
“And we’re gonna be waiting for him, I take it?” Mal asked.
“Well you are. I’ll actually be following him so we don’t lose him if he makes a change in plans.”
When Mal looked at him quizzically Rafe added, “Folks is unaccountable sometimes. Just cause a fella eats bai fan every day of his life don’t mean he won’t take a sudden notion to try jia xiang ji.” Mal gave a soft chuckle in acknowledgement.
“‘Nother thing,” the smaller man concluded, “don’t try to fade into the background. Fellas up to no good do that. You want to stand out a bit, make a bit of noise. Nobody’d figure a villain would call attention to himself, so if you do, you ain’t a villain. “Dong ma?”
“You know Rafe, somehow raisin’ a little hell has never presented much of a problem for me.” Mal answered with his usual wide grin.
“Yeah, I seem to remember something of the sort from Persephone.” Tanaka remarked dryly, as Rafe gave a smothered laugh at the understatement.
Before they left the Katy Rafe gave him a quick lesson in unobtrusively pouring the contents of a glass down the inside of his sleeve, causing Mal to finally break down and ask. “Boy, you gotta tell me how a deep space engineer and sometime Bowncoat gunner knows so gorram much about--well--about the stuff you know so gorram much about!”
Rafe had grinned mysteriously and said nothing but Tanaka had taken pity on Mal’s mystification. “Rafe’s daddy was one of the best all around grifters on the border worlds. He grew up in the business ‘till his momma said her heart couldn’t take the strain of havin’ both the men in her life likely to rolled up by the law at any minute. They sent him away to school—what were you—sixteen, Rafe?
“Fifteen.” He answered dispassionately, “Papa retired by the time I got my first berth. They were livin’ on Tian Shang when it was scourged at the beginning of the war. That’s when I enlisted.”
“Wode tìan!” Mal grunted in sympathy. Early in the conflict someone in a position to set Alliance policy got the bright idea that it would bring the border worlds to heel if they were set a few examples. Alliance cruisers had appeared in the sky over worlds where Browncoat sympathy was strong and HKN-514 ‘planet busters’ had been dropped. None of the planets chosen had any significant industrial or agricultural importance, or military value, come to that. The Feds in charge didn’t want to destroy resources that could be useful after the rebellion was put down. The atrocities only hardened the resolve of the Independent forces. There had been an immediate outcry at the abomination. Even the Alliance core worlds were shocked and demanded immediate justice for the outrage. But by then three worlds were radio-active cinders, Tian Shang among them.
There was really nothing more to be said as the three men sat in respectful silence, until Rafe visibly shook off the moment and said, “Best get you saddled up.” Mal, his eyes suspiciously bright, cleared his throat and nodded in agreement. They left Tanaka in the galley staring into the bottom of a cup of cold coffee as if could find the answers there to the mystery of life.
Mal got to the bar a couple of hours before their man usually rolled in for his supper and brew. He pulled a stool to the bar and signaled the barkeep like he was a man with a powerful thirst and a driving need to quench it. He started out quiet but as the evening progressed he had gotten more talkative. By the time their man turned up, he had become the kind of loquacious drunk who was telling his troubles to the barman, and the entire bar knew the mythically sordid details of his impending divorce. They couldn’t help it, the way he was carrying on.
He was sitting at the counter with a row of dead soldiers marching artistically across the bar. When the bartender had tried to take them away he’d stopped him, saying, “No, I’m gonna down one for every year we were together. I can’t believe she’d just leave me flat like that. Didn’t I love her? Didn’t I give up other women for her?--Well mostly. Why’s she gotta take on like that jus’ ‘cause I make up to some Fed as can get us on a better ship. She should know it don’t mean a gorram thing. Women is jus’ plain unreasonable.”
He’d dropped about half of what he’d ordered down his sleeve, and another quarter in the bar gutter when the man’s back was to him serving other customers. He’d taken a couple of glasses to the juke box and spilled half their contents on the way there and back so he was fairly sober when he spotted their man come through the door.
Mal was seated in the middle of the small bar. In the nature of things, later arrivals had courteously left space on either side as they filled up the bar. By the time their man arrived there were two open stools, one on either side of Mal.
After a quick look around the room that seemed no more than the casual glance of a man at home, he strolled up, “Evenin’ Joe, I’ll have a dish o’ mutton stew and a pint of ale,” he said easily. The barman nodded and called the order through the open hatch as he pulled a pint of the local ale.
Mal continued his interrupted conversation with the barman, “So like I was sayin’, she took that ole pan and laid it upside my head. I thought I was like to meet my maker. When I came to, I asked her what in the Sam Hill she thought she was doin’ and she said, sweet as you please, ‘Makin’ a point’. I ask you! ‘Makin’ a point!’ Woman might‘ve killed me, all to make a point!”
Joe, the barman, nodded and continued to mop the bar with a rag. He raised a bottle as he silently offered to refill the whiskey that Mal had been drinking all night. At Mal’s nod of acceptance he put out another shot glass and poured him a gill of the not-quite-rot-gut spirit.
“I keep tellin’ myself I’m better off with out her, y’know. But I miss the excitement. Life was always interestin’ with Zoe. Yep, interestin’--You know like that Chinee curse; ‘May you live in interestin’ times’.” Mal turned to survey the room and pretended to notice the mark for the first time, “Ya’ ever have woman trouble frien’?” he slurred in his direction.
The man was just getting his bowl of stew and shook his head without saying anything. Feigning a sharpened interest, Mal eyed the man speculatively. “Mind if I ask your secret, shu ren. ‘Cause I asked every man-jack in this taproom that question and you’re the onliest one as said he never had any woman trouble.” Cocking his head like a drunk who just had a revelation, he added, “You’re not sly are you? ‘Course it don’t make me no nevermind if you are. But the question’d have to be a might different then to have any meanin’.”
The man said economically, “Not sly, just not bothered.” That drew a grin from the barman as Mal turned his theatrically shocked attention completely to the mark. Clearly relieved to cede the honor of being the primary recipient of Mal’s pseudo-drunken self pity, the barman turned to re-stock his glassware just as Rafe entered the bar and looked around the room. Any one present would swear on a stack of bibles that the traveler had come in looking for somebody. When his eyes found Mal nothing could have been more natural than his start of relieved recognition.
He approached and tapped Mal on the shoulder, saying, “Mal, Cap’n sent me to find you, he said if you are drunk or hung-over on duty one more time he’s gonna leave your sorry ass on this rock. Come on now, let’s get you back to the ship.”
Bleary-eyed and carefully slurring his words, Mal shrugged him off, saying “Drunk or hung-over there ain’t never been a watch I ain’t been fit for duty.” At the same time he swung his shoulder away from Rafe’s hand and artistically caught his elbow in both the stew bowl and the beer mug, sending them flying and splashing the mark and Mal liberally.
“Ai ya, Mal! Dang xin! Now look what you done to the man” Rafe was the perfect picture of the mortified sober friend of an obnoxious drunk. “Sorry friend, Mal’s been takin’ it pretty hard since his wife served him the papers over the cortex. He was kinda hopin’ she might change her mind, like she done before.” All the while he was talking Rafe was using a bar towel to mop at the mark’s utilities. He signaled the barman who came up to the trio and called for another bowl of stew and another beer. “Let me get this for ya, friend.” He said in an apologetic tone.
Mal grinned sheepishly as he said, “Guess I got more sheets in the wind than I thought.”
“Ya’ think?” Rafe said sarcastically. “Now will you come away back and sleep it off, before Tanaka takes clean against havin’ ya back on board a’tall?”
“Reckon, I best at that.” Mal said in feigned contrition as he laid a few coins on the bar. “That do ya’ then friend, for the trouble I been to ya?” He asked. The barman replied with a smiling nod at the size of the tip. “Lead on then, Rafe. I’m right behind ya.” He called jocularly as they rolled out of the bar.
As soon as they left the bar Mal straightened out of his drunken lurch as Rafe melted into the shadowed doorway of a closed bodega to wait for their man to exit. Byphodine took awhile to take effect. The whole point was to be out of sight and out of mind of any witnesses before their man gave up the ghost. They waited in the gloom of the unlit street for over an hour, it was approaching twenty-three hundred when their man ambled out and turned in the direction of the Conservation Corps barracks. As they tracked him soundlessly for a few blocks, they saw him develop a pretty pronounced stagger, until gaining on him they approached from either side and each took ahold of an arm, swinging it over their shoulder they guided the bewildered and incapable man into a dark alley.
To be continued--Chapter 9
Monday, September 29, 2003 9:31 AM
Thursday, October 09, 2003 12:22 AM
Sunday, November 09, 2003 4:53 PM
Monday, April 05, 2004 6:14 AM
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